Friday, May 18, 2007

RoboHelp for Word or RoboHelp HTML?

When you buy RoboHelp, you actually get two separate modules – RoboHelp for Word and RoboHelp HTML. Which one should you use?

It seems obvious – use RoboHelp for Word if you write content in Word, and RoboHelp HTML if you write content in HTML. Simple, logical, and wrong. It’s a common error, and a great example of unintended consequences, in this case because of a product name change. What’s the problem?

The original RoboHelp was an add-on to Word and just called RoboHelp. When eHelp, the original vendor, released the HTML version in the late ‘90s, it had to distinguish between the two versions so it renamed them RoboHelp Classic and RoboHelp HTML.

This fixed the problem for a while. However, as more and more authors went directly to RoboHelp HTML, without ever using Classic, the word “Classic” became confusing. New authors didn’t understand what it referred to. To fix this, eHelp renamed RoboHelp Classic RoboHelp for Word. Unfortunately, this new name only made sense to authors who knew RoboHelp’s history. Authors who didn’t know the history made the mistake that I described above. So which module should you use?

RoboHelp for Word was designed to create the Windows Help, or “WinHelp” format that dates from the late ‘80s. Microsoft unofficially terminated WinHelp when it introduced HTML Help in ’97, but WinHelp remains widely used. However, it is declining quickly because of its technical limitations in the HTML/XML era and because of development headaches in the Word-based environment.

So unless you’re still creating WinHelp (and it’s time to be migrating to an HTML-based format if you are), you should not be using RoboHelp for Word. Instead, you should be using RoboHelp HTML. Here are three major reasons why:

More up-to-date – After Microsoft introduced HTML Help in ’97, it largely let WinHelp stagnate in its technology and its interface. The result is an output format that can’t take advantage of modern features and looks just plain outdated in our web-oriented world, unlike the HTML formats.

More efficient authoring – Many of the annoyances in RoboHelp for Word vanish when you move to RoboHelp HTML. Table handling is far better, with no more of the “Table cell borders not supported” errors, because HTML does a better job with tables than does Word. Topics are individual files, rather than combined in one huge Word file, so topic handling is more flexible. (Be warned, however, that you will lose some features that you take for granted, such as the non-scrolling topic titles and the button bar.)

Easier project maintenance – As HTML-based outputs have come to dominate the field in recent years, fewer and fewer authors know RoboHelp for Word. This means you may have a difficult time finding contractors or new writers who can maintain a RoboHelp for Word project.

But what if your subject matter expects write in Word? How do you use those documents with RoboHelp HTML? Not a problem; RoboHelp HTML can easily import a Word documents, automatically converting it to HTML and, in many cases, automatically breaking the Word document into a multitude of separate topic files.

In summary, if you’re not using RoboHelp’s HTML module, it’s time to think about it.

Note – I won’t be blogging again until the first week in June. Please check back then.

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